Review: The Four Stages of Cruelty, Arcola Theatre, Friday 27 May 2011

Originally written for The Public Reviews.

Is the individual or the society responsible for cruelty? The question that appears to be asked by William Hogarth’s set of explicit engravings depicting scenes of brutality in eighteenth-century London provides the simple but unusual premise for simple8’s new play. The small ensemble company have constructed the story of protagonist Tom Nero using the scaffolding of Hogarth’s four engravings, chronicling one man’s descent into sin and crime in a city teeming with corruption.

Tom Nero is an orphan boy who likes to watch the public hangings and is soon drawn to cruel ways, torturing a dog in the scene shown by Hogarth’s first engraving. Turfed out of his orphanage for this act of brutality, he is left to make his own way in the city and quickly embarks on the route to crime. Richard Maxted is the youth led astray by the promise of opportunity, beginning as a convincingly wide-eyed and lost youngster but not quite achieving the same conviction when he completes the journey to cut-throat criminal; the grotesque cruelty so vividly etched by Hogarth is never fully realised in Maxted’s performance.

Maxted is strongly supported by the rest of the ensemble, who all take on a multitude of roles, accents and musical instruments, impressively evoking the roar and chaos of eighteenth-century London. David Brett and Hannah Emanuel’s music is central to the production, providing a background of rowdy tavern jigs and mournful accordion tunes, while the central refrain cleverly incorporates the verses accompanying Hogarth’s engravings.  The Hogarth link is made further explicit by copies of the engravings printed on sheets hung from a washing line suspended across the studio, although the repeated hanging and pulling down of sheets does begin to verge on the tedious.

Hogarth’s violent images, while produced with a seemingly straightforward aim of moral instruction, have been considered problematic due to their ambiguous presentation of the punishments inflicted by society, punishments that are in Hogarth’s horrific depiction no less cruel than the crimes of Nero. This level of complexity, however, is missing from simple8’s production. While it is crudely hinted that Nero’s eager consumption of violence from an early age at the public hangings influences his later behaviour, the cruelty of the title is never fully diagnosed and Nero’s transformation from mischievous young orphan to hardened criminal is all too swift.

There is, despite this central disappointment of plot and character development, much to enjoy about simple8’s production. The ensemble company redefine the idea of doing a lot with a little, creating ingenious staging solutions in the small space and with limited props, transporting us to the loud and grubby streets of eighteenth-century London. Far from being all gloom, there is also an ideally balanced smattering of comic relief throughout. The cast, meanwhile, successfully inhabit their selection of different roles on the whole, with Dudley Hinton standing out as a ruthless and unpredictable Irish criminal leader and Stephanie Brittain turning in an impressive performance as Nero’s mistress Anne, her youthful vivacity gradually eroded to bitterness and despair.

Yet as the surgeon dissects the body of Nero in the representation of the fourth engraving, attempting to discover the source of cruelty, there is a sense that this is a show that could have done a little more dissecting of its own. The concluding combination of striking visual image and vividly evocative music is a mini theatrical triumph, but after the lights come up a feeling of incompleteness lingers. Enjoyable as it may be, simple8’s production never quite achieves the same impact as the Hogarth engravings from which it takes its inspiration.

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